‘Melissa Murals’ uses hometown of Huntington Beach as her canvas
Sometimes Melissa Murphy can only laugh at the details of her job as a muralist.
A few months ago she was hired for one of her largest projects — the exterior of the Sunset Lounge in Sunset Beach.
“I first started off with a 40-foot boom [lift],” Murphy said with a smile. “The rental company just straight up handed me the keys. They’re like, ‘Oh, you know how to drive it.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, I guess I’ll YouTube it.’”
Murphy used that to paint the front of the property. On the south end, where she painted two more murals, an even larger 60-foot boom was required.
Now the exterior of the building, which was a nondescript gray before, explodes with reds and oranges and blues and purples. The adventure paid off.
“I’m like a construction worker,” Murphy said. “You know, I’m on a boom, I’m sealing walls, I’m plastering stuff. It’s not just being an artist, if you want to do it right.”
Everyone in Huntington Beach agrees that Murphy, 38, does it right. Better known as “Melissa Murals,” she’s one of her hometown’s most well-known artists.
Her work is all around the city. Some of her biggest projects recently include a mural inside Bud & Gene’s restaurant at the end of the pier, one at Huntington Beach Propane and another offering at Pacific City, which is visible off Pacific Coast Highway.
Many of her pieces feature the beach and sea life, perhaps not surprisingly for an artist who has an affinity for the water. Murphy, who was an ocean lifeguard for a decade, played water polo and was a competitive surfer at Edison High before graduating with an art degree from Long Beach State in 2008.
Surfing remains a big part of her life, made easier by the fact that her apartment downtown on Orange Avenue is within easy walking distance of the beach. In 2021, she was commissioned to paint a USA Surfing mural in San Clemente, in honor of that sport being in the Olympics for the first time.
The mural at Pacific City spills out onto the ground, and benches nearby are also adorned with the theme.
“She’s a very integral part of the art community in Huntington Beach,” Pacific City marketing director Jennifer Williams said. “We’re lucky to have her. We give her a very basic idea, and within days she comes back and she’s like, ‘What do you think of this?’ And it just blows our mind away. I can’t even say that there was one time where I said, ‘No, I don’t like that, do this.’ And then next thing you know, she’s painting it and it just morphs into even better.”
Several electrical boxes around town have been spruced up by “Melissa Murals.” She said she was commissioned to paint one of them, outside City Hall at the corner of Main Street and Yorktown Avenue, by the daughter of a man who died in a car crash there about five years ago. His Porsche is on the front of the box. On the side she painted a horse-mounted police officer, and she said the folks at Huntington Beach Police Department, headquartered just steps away, appreciated that work.
Across the street is one of her most famous murals, in the theater at Huntington Beach High. It’s a large one, dedicated in 2018, that details the history of the city.
“She documented the history there, but she’s kind of painting herself into the history all around town,” City Councilwoman Natalie Moser said.
Murphy said it took her about a year, working just on weekends, to finish that piece at HBHS. Only recently has she been able to quit her full-time job in the probation department for Orange County, where she handled social media, graphic design and photography, to focus completely on her art.
“It’s a very alternative career, you know,” she said. “It’s not like being a nurse or a doctor or an engineer. It took me 20 years to be able to make a living off of my art. It’s very difficult. I’ve always had full-time jobs and always had projects going on the side. It was a dream to have a career doing my art, and I really never thought it was possible.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, she was able to work from home, and she said that’s when her business “really started to blow up.” She also adapted herself, designing face masks for the Orange County Health Care Agency as part of its “Spread Positive Vibes” campaign.
She said she got serious and hired a business manager — well, kind of. Don Willis, a retired business executive and former client of Murphy’s, actually works for free to help with her career.
“In some ways, I’m kind of like the bad guy,” he said with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘No way, you can’t do that’ ... You need to charge a fair amount for your services. You can’t give away everything, which is basically what she was doing.”
But Willis knows that just speaks to Murphy’s giving nature. She said when she was painting one mural of the dog beach on a liquor store downtown, people would walk by and ask her to paint their dog into the mural. She happily obliged.
“She loves Huntington Beach and all of the people in Huntington Beach,” Willis said. “She’s one of the most sociable people I’ve ever met, and she’s got a great heart.”
Her business acumen is there. She greets people with a sticker but also a business card, and she sells art prints through her website. Though the rainy season has slowed Murphy’s efforts recently, it hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm.
She’s currently working on art at Andersen Elementary in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. Andersen’s mascot is the dolphin, which means more of the sea scenes that Murphy loves.
Her process has evolved over the years, from just painting on the side of walls. Now she uses a primer and deluxe paint, and tops the mural off with a coat of a two-component epoxy that acts as an anti-graffiti layer.
“People actually hire me to make their businesses look better,” Murphy said. “Working with these small business owners, it’s like a team. This building [at Sunset Lounge], nobody noticed it before. It was gray. Now people come in, because of the mural. It’s just working together with other small businesses that makes it fun. They get to improve their business, and I get to do what I love to do. It’s a win-win.”
Huntington Beach residents and community leaders alike feel the same way about having “Melissa Murals” representing Surf City. Moser, herself a photographer, had always seen Murphy around town but got to know her more after being elected in 2020.
The following summer, the city held a modified Fourth of July parade, with vehicles driving around town and greeting residents. Moser commissioned Murphy to design the back of her vehicle, and she painted two surfboards, with dolphins and the American flag.
“It’s incredible to watch,” Moser said. “You see it just develop from nothing, and it just blows me away. Yeah, I’m a photographer, I can capture moments and document them in a particular way from how I see it. But to see her create all of these scenes from nothing? And she has fun doing it.
“She’s always smiling. She’s just comfortable in her own skin.”
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